Paul P. Mealing

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Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Storytelling, Art and the Evolution of Mind

This is in response to a book, On the Origin of Stories by a Kiwi academic, Brian Boyd, subtitled Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. According to the back fly cover, Brian Boyd is ‘University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English, University of Auckland [and] is the world’s foremost authority on the works of Vladimir Nabokov.’

It’s an ambitious work in that Boyd attempts to explain, or, at best, understand, the role of art, and stories in particular, in the evolutionary development of the human mind. In this endeavour, he references the work of well-known exponents in the field, like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, but also many others.

Storytelling, or more specifically, literature, is a subject that attracted attention on Stephen Law’s blog earlier this month, and was taken up by others: Larry Niven and Faith in Honest Doubt are two that I’m aware of. Boyd’s book, like all good philosophical treatises, is provocative and introduces novel perspectives.

I’ll warn you in advance, that this is a very lengthy post, even by my standards. Having said that, I’ve written much longer treatises on the subject than this; so in some respects this could be considered the abridged version.

As a writer of fiction, and having once taught a course in fiction writing, I obviously have particular views of my own. I once wrote a letter to New Scientist (which was consequentially published) supporting the idea that art was like the ‘Peacock’s Tail’ in driving the development of the human brain. It’s an idea originally proposed by Geoffrey Miller, that art and intelligence evolved together in humans by ‘sexual selection’. Boyd makes the point that this is not the whole story and I suspect he’s correct, but I’m getting ahead of myself, so I will backtrack slightly.

Boyd’s book is broken down into 2 major parts (Book I & Book II), with the first part looking at evolution and cognition and art, and the second part looking at 2 iconic works in particular: Homer’s Odyssey and Dr Seuss’s Horton hears a Who! I’ll address Book I mainly, as it captures both the essence and the detail of Boyd’s ‘evolutionary’ thesis.

There are 2 main strands to his thesis on evolutionary human development: co-operation and ‘cognitive play’; the latter term being one that Boyd has coined himself to explain the origins of art per se. Co-operation, as Boyd expounds in detail, is a necessary attribute of any social species, of which there are innumerable examples in all areas of the animal kingdom from ants and bees to top predators. I won’t elaborate on this aspect of Boyd’s thesis, even though he returns to it often, but its significance to storytelling is that stories give ‘lessons’ in the role of co-operation or the consequences of betrayal – in other words, moral lessons. But this is only one component of a very complex picture.

Boyd’s elaboration on ‘cognitive play’ is far more interesting, if for no other reason, than it’s a novel concept that fits our experience and observations. He starts off by pointing out how play is an important part of the development of many species in that it tunes their sensory-motor responses and effectively ‘wires’ their brain in ways that are crucial for their survival as adults. The same, of course, is true for humans, but our development is particularly prolonged, and has been focused by cultural enhancements. And, in humans, the development of mental acuity is just as important (arguably even more important) as physical acuity, hence the role of cognitive play, which Boyd argues is the origin of art.

So cognitive play forms the same role as physical play observed in other species, only humans have taken it to another level, as we tend to do with anything mental. Boyd points out that singing in birds, or the ‘art work’ of a bower bird is another example, but these are examples of sexual selection behaviours, which may or may not be relevant to human artistic endeavours. In fact, Boyd argues that there are numerous examples of human art that are not performed or produced for sexual selection, which may be a by-product rather than the primary driver.

What he’s saying is that cognitive play, in the form of artistic, creative acts, is a means to ‘tune’ our brains for better cognitive skills rather than impress the opposite sex, though that does happen as we are all aware, but so does winning on the sports field.

And certainly, when we are children, we see art as playing, or certainly I did. Whenever I was given any spare time at all, I drew pictures and I drew compulsively right up to puberty when I lost interest altogether. So I see merit in Boyd’s notion of cognitive play, even if it’s based on my personal experience rather than objective observation.

Where I disagree with Boyd is in regard to what is the reward in art. Boyd argues that it is pattern that provides the pleasure (he says reward) and gives the example of music, as well as story. He explains how we have been ‘designed’ (he has no problem using the ‘d’ word in evolution, and neither do I) to look for patterns, and art rewards us in this regard. In music we anticipate the melody even when we listen to it for the first time and we find it unsatisfactory when it doesn’t meet our expectations of harmony or rhythm. The same is true of stories where we have expectations provided by plot development and are disappointed if our expectations are not met.

But, personally, I think Boyd is slightly off track here. What music and stories have in common is that they create tension and then resolve that tension. It is the resolution of the tension that gives the most satisfying reward. It’s unsurprisingly similar to the sexual experience, and in all cases we are rewarded with dopamine. It is no coincidence that the word ‘climax’ is used in all three contexts: music, stories and sex.

But there are other rewards: highly specific emotional rewards. I overheard a friend, recently recommending, to another friend, a book that she had read because it had aroused all her emotions. She said that it had made her laugh, cry, feel scared and angry. She had felt: compassion, sexiness, excitement, anxiety, despair and moral outrage; all in one book. Without, at least, some of these emotional rewards, stories would not hold our attention for long, if at all.

Speaking of attention, Boyd raises it as a special attribute, not just in reference to storytelling, but in regards to humanity in general. Attention seeking and attention sharing is apparent in infants from an early age, and, according to Boyd, is unique to humanity in its overriding dominance in infant behaviour. To quote: ‘Human one-year-olds engage in joint attention… indicating objects or events simply for the sake of sharing attention to them, something that apes never do. They expect others to share interest, attention, and response: “This by itself is rewarding for infants – apparently in a way it is not for any other species on the planet.”’ This last, indented quotation is Boyd quoting D.S Wilson quoting Michael Tomasello.

The upshot is that ‘attention seeking’ is one of the main drivers behind artistic endeavour and, based on personal experience, I would concur. Boyd quotes H.G. Wells: “Scarcely any artist will hesitate in the choice between money and attention.” Which explains why the great bulk of artists, now, and in antiquity, rarely received a livable income from their efforts. It’s a misapprehension, as I know from personal conversations, that artists seek fame to gain fortune, otherwise they’d all give up early. It’s equally misperceived that artists are happy to create works just for themselves or for the sake of the doing. Artists crave an audience above all else – it’s their whole raison d’etre.

Boyd talks about ‘creativity’ in Darwinian terms: how it’s almost a random process, or variations on accepted themes (like mutations) that get selected by the artist’s milieu or audience. He points out that it doesn’t have ‘value’ in biological terms but he gives examples of how it’s value-added in technology, and of how technology and art have had a symbiotic relationship (my terminology, not his). Printing allowed the production of novels that could be read in one’s own time, film technology gave us movies and recordings gave us music on-demand; these are all iconic examples.

But, to my mind, this strictly Darwinian interpretation underplays the role of imagination; although, to be fair to Boyd, he’s not dismissive of it, quite the contrary. Imagination is the ability to perceive some event or place or person that is not in the here and now. It could be in the past or the future, or another geographical location, or it could be completely fictional. As I pointed out in a previous post, we know that some animals have imagination, because they can imagine the outcome of a hunting strategy, otherwise how or why would they be able to do it? (Refer: Imagination, Mar. 08).

But we humans take imagination to another level, and art, all art, is effectively the projection of an individual’s imagination in the form of some external manifestation so that others can also experience it. In fact, this is as close to a definition of art as I can give. Imagination is the key to creativity – I find it impossible to conceive of one without the other. But imagination is also the key to the comprehension of a story (Boyd also appreciates this as I explicate below, though he uses different terminology).

After a lengthy exposition on the ‘theory of mind’: how it has evolved in primates and other species, and the stages it achieves at different ages in children, from causal inferences to the perception of others’ beliefs; Boyd eventually reveals an insight, that, as a writer, I already knew.

But first he explains the difference between semantic and episodic memory: the former dealing with facts and the latter dealing with events or experiences. Importantly, he references the work of Frederic Bartlett who made us aware that episodic memories are reconstructed in a way that we recollect the ‘gist’ of an event rather than any particular detail. Boyd points out that we reconstruct an episodic memory for its value in future encounters, rather than a need for knowledge per se, as we do with semantic memory.

Then he says: ‘Tellingly for this constructive episodic simulation hypothesis, imagining the future recruits most of the same brain areas as recalling the past… to provide a form of “life simulator” that allows us to test options without trying them in real life.’ (Italics in the original.) This, of course, is an accurate description of ‘fiction’, but it also occurs in dreams. As a writer, I’ve always known that the ‘medium’ for a story is not the words on the page, but the reader’s imagination, and, effectively, that is what Boyd is saying.

He makes the point even more emphatically when he quotes Barsalou: “As people comprehend a text, they construct simulations to represent its perceptual, motor, and affective content. Simulations appear central to the representation of meaning.” Boyd then goes on to explain how this specific human ability allows us to follow a particular character (he uses the word, agent) in a narrative. (I’ll come back to this when I discuss viewpoint.)

By the time Boyd starts to talk about narrative you’re well into the book, and what he’s really talking about is gossip, where we relate events to others concerning our interpretation of someone else’s viewpoint. Is this how fiction arose? I’m not sure. In the modern world it’s equivalent to journalism, and the differences between journalism and fiction are much greater than people realise. For a start, journalism is not art, and that’s a big distinction. Art must always engage one emotionally, and whilst both gossip and journalism can fulfill that function, fiction works on another level. Biography comes closest: a well-written biography can engage a reader as well as any fiction; but fiction is an art that few people master, in the same way that few people master musical composition. In fact, I would suggest that the difference between journalism and fiction is like the difference between someone performing a song and someone composing it.

I’ve always compared fiction writing to musical composition, even though I’ve done one and not the other. It’s just that writing fiction has more in common, in my mind, to music, than to writing non-fiction. Someone (I can’t remember who) said that all art comes back to music, or words to that effect, and, in my limited experience as an artist, I would have to agree. In fiction you create moods and emotions and responses, not unlike music, which is completely different to non-fiction. In journalism you can sometimes achieve the same, but it’s not the raison d’etre of journalism as it is in fiction.

Or is it? Consider that the ‘stories’ that attract attention are always the ones that horrify us, and if they don’t, the media ‘sensationalises’ them just for the sake of ‘good copy’. Just today, I heard an 8 minute interview with a survivor of the recent bombing in Indonesia, and it was the man’s authenticity and sincerity that engaged me. But why do I take this vicarious interest in someone else’s misfortune? Is this the same reason that I read fiction? Perhaps it is, but I expect not. If we can get all the vicarious emotive responses we need from all the world’s disasters then why do we need fiction? Boyd doesn’t address this, but maybe it’s unanswerable.

I have my own theory: fiction, from childhood to adulthood, is about escapism. People ‘indulge’ in fiction to escape. Therefore, in my view, it has more in common, historically, with mythology than gossip. Comic book superheroes are our equivalent to mythology, from Tarzan living with the apes to Superman who came from outer space to provide a moral code that is as indomitable as his abilities. So fiction arose from the imagination escaping way beyond the bounds of our mortal existence. But with subtlety and more down-to-earth realism it became our earliest model of psychology, which Boyd alludes to on more than one occasion. I’ve always contended that fiction is a mixture of reality and fantasy, and how it’s blended varies according to the genre and the author’s proclivities.

Boyd doesn’t use the word, escapism, but the term, ‘pretend-play’, as the catalyst for storytelling, along with the need for novelty and surprise, especially amongst young children. He points out that only humans can pretend something to be something else, like an analogy, and children demonstrate pretend-play, including pretend-attributed objects (like sticks for swords and guns) from a very early age. Pretend-play certainly exercises the imagination, and escapism is the logical consequence of that. Escapism alludes to setting the imagination free: allowing it to roam beyond the everyday. The imagination needs exercise, in the form of ‘cognitive play’ just like any other aspect of our physiology. So I believe Boyd has provided a valuable insight with this novel concept.

If fiction originally started as play in the form of drama, then Boyd’s contention that cognitive play is the root of fiction makes a lot of sense, though I don’t believe that’s what he had in mind. Performing as a character for an audience is certainly one of the best sources of natural opiates one can acquire, as I can attest from personal experience. Probably equivalent to performing on a sports field, though I’m not in a position to compare. But if fiction started off as performance, then it makes more sense to me than the idea that it originated from our propensity for gossip, and I expect Boyd would agree.

However, we tend to think that fiction started as an oral tradition, as Boyd explores in his analysis of Homer’s Odyssey, but that too is a performance, albeit of a different kind to acting out a drama. Few people appreciate the similarity between writing fiction and acting a role, yet it requires a writer to create the role in their head even before the actor has seen it. I’ve always believed that the mental process is the same for both. It requires them both to mentally step into someone else’s shoes. When a reader becomes engaged in reading a work of fiction they become the actor in their own mind, only they’re not consciously aware of it.

Boyd repeatedly makes allusions to empathy and ‘mirror neurons’ in his text. In the 25 June 2008 issue of New Scientist, under the heading, The Science of Fiction, they report on psychometric studies done to show how reading fiction improves empathy. The specific test for empathy was reading the emotional content of eyes revealed in a letter-box view. So you wouldn’t think that reading fiction would improve the reading of eyes, but it’s not so surprising when one considers that empathy is a pre-requisite for fiction to work at all. So reading fiction actually exercises our empathy.

In his analysis of Odyssey, I have a subtly different perspective to Boyd, whose exposition I won’t go into. This is such an iconic work, that ‘odyssey’ refers to a genre in its own right. It represents, in one epic work, the most universal theme of all stories: the hero overcoming a string of adversities to achieve a life-saving, even soul-saving, goal. I believe this is such a universal theme in fiction, because it’s how we all gain self-knowledge and wisdom, even though we rarely admit it. It’s Socrates’ adage about the unexamined life in a narrative form: it’s only when we are seriously challenged that we seriously examine ourselves. It’s a universal theme that can be found in all cultures, including the Chinese I Ching: ‘Adversity is the reverse of success, but it can lead to success if it befalls the right person.’ Those very words encapsulate the theme of almost any work of fiction one cares to nominate.

One of the aspects of fiction, that Boyd touches on obliquely, is our ability to follow its thread when our limited working memory doesn’t allow us to keep the whole work in our mind for the story’s duration. In fact, a lengthy novel can be read over days without us losing our way, like rejoining a path after having a night’s sleep. One reason is that a well-written story states its premise* early on, and Boyd gives the example of Odyssey where we know the goal from the beginning. But a more contemporary example would be J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where she gives the premise for the entire 7 books in the first few chapters of the first book, so we know what it’s all about all the way through.

Subplots can be followed if they are all interwoven with the plot that the protagonist is following. In fact, every relationship in a story is its own subplot, and if all the relationships involve the protagonist then it’s no more difficult to follow than what we encounter in our own lives. And likewise, the hero’s journey is analogous to what we experience in real life, albeit the hero’s world is completely different to the one we live in. So when we read the story we are in the hero’s here and now, and we find that no more difficult than living in our own here and now. This is the power of human imagination - we can live a vicarious life as easily as we can live our own – escapism is fiction, or, more accurately, fiction is escapism, almost by definition.

On another level, there is a cognitive aspect to this that is more universal. We only comprehend new knowledge when we integrate it into existing knowledge. For example: we generally only understand a new word when it is explained using known words (just look up a dictionary). With a story, we are constantly integrating new knowledge into existing knowledge as the story progresses. So we are exercising a fundamental, uniquely human, cognitive skill while we are being entertained.

In his lengthy discussion on Odyssey, Boyd alludes more than once to every writer’s dilemma: how to meet the reader’s expectations, that the premise itself often creates, and also surprise them. Expectations are necessary if a storyteller wishes to engage their audience, but without surprises they will be less than satisfied. It’s the tension between plot and character that Boyd obviously appreciates, but struggles to articulate, that creates the dilemma, but also resolves it if the writer knows how. The plot provides the expectations and it’s the characters that provide the surprises – this is my own personal experience as a writer, and one of the secrets, I believe, of our craft. If a character surprises you as a writer, then you know they will also surprise the reader. The secret is to give your characters ‘free will’; that way they provide the spontaneity that differentiates fresh fiction from stale. Not all writers agree with me on this, but if my characters don’t take on a life of their own, then I know my story is not worth pursuing. (Refer my Dec.08 post, Zen; an interpretation, for an artist’s perspective, specifically Escher’s.)

This leads to another aspect of prose fiction, that Boyd explores in his analysis of Odyssey, which is multiple viewpoints. Good fiction doesn’t need a narrator, because it’s the characters that tell the story, which is another secret of the craft. Viewpoint should be internal not external, whether it be first person or third person intimate, and that is why they are the most popular viewpoints used in novels. Obviously, third person intimate allows greater flexibility and that’s why it is the most popular method of all. Character is the inner world and plot is the outer world, which makes plot synonymous with fate and character synonymous with free will; that is the secret of writing fiction in a nutshell.

This has been a much longer essay than I intended, but then fiction is a personal passion of mine, and Boyd’s tome covers an enormous territory.

However, there is still one aspect of fiction, specifically prose fiction, that hasn’t been addressed, and it’s not really addressed by Boyd either. He refers to ‘life-simulation’, as I mentioned earlier, which in effect is imagining future scenarios, which allows fiction to work, not only for the writer but also for the reader. What he doesn’t mention is the crucial role of imagery.

Right at the end of his book, Boyd discusses in some detail Dr. Seuss’s Horton hears a Who! which is a classic, and highly successful, children’s picture-book. Only once (in a radio interview with Margaret Throsby, ABC Classic FM) have I heard the issue raised as to why we progress from books with pictures to books without pictures, and it was raised by Margaret, from memory, not the interviewee, whom I’ve since forgotten.

I can still remember the first stories that entranced me, before I could read myself, and I believe it was the pictures, more than the words, that engaged me. (I also started drawing my own pictures from a very early age.) We had a series of classic fairy tales, in a comic book style, but with almost photographic-style coloured images, not cartoonish at all. But some of them I got my mother to read over and over again, though I used to look at the pictures while she read them.

Of course, when I was older, in the days before TV, I listened to radio serials and read comic books, which are closer to film than literature. Unlike other children, I would read the same comic over and over until I was well and truly sated with it. I liked the experience so much I would repeat it until it no longer engaged me.

But at some point, we make the transition to books without pictures, and we actually prefer them, because, for some reason, they engage us more. And I believe the reason is twofold. Firstly, we get inside the heads of the characters (via viewpoint as I mentioned earlier) in a way that can’t happen with comics, or even movies, and that is why books of fiction are not yet dead. Secondly, we eventually reach a point where it is just as satisfying to create our own pictures in our own mind, which, of course, we do without conscious effort. But it is like we learn to ‘translate’ words into the pictures of story, via our capacious and almost preternatural imaginations.

I made the point earlier, and in another post, that without the facility of imagination, no one would even be able to appreciate a story, let alone write one. But there is more: without the innate, indeed, prime-natural ability we have for imagery, cinema would have killed the novel a century ago (as I alluded to above). I’ve speculated previously that without language we would think in imagery. My evidence is dreams. We all dream in imagery and metaphor, and that is why stories are so easy for us. The language of story is the language of dreams.

* ‘Premise’, I’ve found in American texts on fiction, is often confounded with ‘theme’, even though dictionary definitions clearly delineate them. Premise is the foundation or starting point, both in the context of an argument or a story. Theme is a recurring motif, originally applied to music, but, in the context of a story, can be a message or a moral or an allegory or just an idea. The premise and the theme of a story can be the same, but mostly they’re not, and some stories don’t even have a substantial theme. But God help the reader of a story that doesn’t have a premise.


Tyler said...

Thanks for the mention of the New Scientist article. :)
Errata: it was the June 28 (not 25) issue.
P.S.: I found your blog through a Google alert for the keyword "empathy."

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Tyler,

Thanks for your comment. The article is by Keith Oatley, titled the science of fiction.

According to the link it's 25 June, so maybe you're thinking of something else.

I actually think that empathy is what the world needs more than anything else.

Regards, Paul.

Philip O'Mara said...

Interesting comments.

It’s time to read a great new romantic comedy, entitled Classes Apart.
This is an adult sporting comedy that follows the fortunes of Paul Marriot, the secretary of the Barnstorm Village Sunday soccer team and coach of a school cricket team in Yorkshire, England. The story describes the remarkable camaraderie between the players and supporters of this little club and their desire to achieve success. The team had previously been known more for its antics off the field, rather than their performances on it.

During his time at the club he meets and becomes involved with Emma Potter, who is the sister of James Potter, a major player for their bitter rivals Moortown Inn. Thus, begins an entangled web of romance and conflict. He also begins working at Derry High School, a school with a poor reputation of academic success, where he becomes coach of the school cricket team. Here he develops an amazing relationship with the children and they embark on an epic journey.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Philip,

Is this your first book?

Regards, Paul.

larryniven said...

"What music and stories have in common is that they create tension and then resolve that tension. It is the resolution of the tension that gives the most satisfying reward."

This brings to mind Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, which drove me totally out of my head when I read it. It's written, I think, to be the literary equivalent of a piece of music with no resolution - and boy does it work. A hundred pages in I felt a little perturbed; three hundred pages in I wanted to tear out my hair; by the end of the book I just wanted the damn thing to be over so I didn't have to read it anymore. Probably it's very well-written, but it's hard to tell when you feel like your head's about to explode.

"Artists crave an audience above all else – it’s their whole raison d’etre."

And this reminds me of a play we discussed in the one philosophy of art class I took - you'll have to forgive me, I can't remember the name. Apparently, the audience was to spend the entire first act in the lobby, blind and deaf to the events transpiring onstage. I wonder, do the actors performing this play invent their own audience?

"When a reader becomes engaged in reading a work of fiction they become the actor in their own mind, only they’re not consciously aware of it."

Actually, on (very rare) occasion, I'll twitch when a character does something or is in a certain situation. Most often this happens when basketball's involved (I guess because that's where my reflexes are conditioned the most strongly), but not always. I assume, also, that you've read about the studies where they saw that reading fiction engages the same parts of your brain as actually enacting the events described.

(more to come later, probably, I had to put this aside for a while)

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Larry,

It's good to know that people relate to the same things or identify with the same experiences.

In regard to the play your talking about, I expect that, for the actors, performing without an audience would have felt the same as doing a rehearsal. Having an audience makes a big difference, let me tell you. I'm not an actor, by the way, but I've been in musicals when I was a lot, lot younger.

Well, I'm not surprised that the same part of the brain is activated in a story as in reality; it's really no different to being in a dream. It's why people react with tears and laughter and even eroticism.

I even passed out in a cinema watching The Deer Hunter during the Russian roullete scene - I got so emotionally involved. Actually, I left the cinema because I thought I was going to throw up, then passed out on the street outside in a cold sweat.

Interested in any further comment you may have.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Can't spell roulette.

larryniven said...

"Having an audience makes a big difference, let me tell you. I'm not an actor, by the way, but I've been in musicals when I was a lot, lot younger."

No kidding! Me too, though I do wonder if it would feel just like a rehearsal. Maybe that's just wishful thinking, though: it's kind of depressing to think that a live performance would ever feel just like a rehearsal. Oh, and the most I've identified with a movie character since I was like eight was in "A Clockwork Orange" during the Ludvico technique scenes. I blinked like crazy the whole time.

As for the rest of it, I actually have real trouble visualizing the stuff that's happening in a book. In high school, one of our assignments was to pick actors to play the roles in a play we read (The Cherry Orchard, maybe?) based on the images we had in our head - I basically couldn't do it. I can remember basic visual facts about characters, say, or settings - this person's fat, they drive a blue sedan, whatever - but it's quite rare that I actually pull all of these together into a coherent picture of what's going on.

Still, I really do like reading. Maybe this is the reason I still like graphic novels where many other people don't, I dunno.

Andrew Lehman said...

Running a rift off of your Geoffrey Miller sexual selection source of story, consider that there is a five-step evolution continuum that begins with natural selection and then moves to the next step to where sexual selection, usually by the female, focuses on a specific pattern when they choose a mate. Step three transitions to human sexual selection, where adept practitioners of novel pattern creation (beginning with dance) are selected as procreation partners by mates with sensitivity to these nuances. The fourth step is taken when novelty itself becomes desirable outside the partner selection process, and society is compelled to embrace in its productions the infinite nuances of new. In the fifth stage, awareness of evolution’s stages attended by an awareness of the awareness that accompanies evolution provides an identification with the five-stage creation continuum.

The fifth stage loops around to stage one, what we think of as competitive evolution, accompanied by awareness.

1) natural selection
2) sexual selection (selecting for pattern when seeking a mate)
3) human sexual selection (selection for novel pattern when seeking a mate)
4) art (selecting for novel pattern outside of mate selection)
5) awareness of the selection or creative process

Story has structure. Lifted from the infinite associational matrix of experience, a story allows the traveler to follow a single strand from a beginning through a middle to an end. Whether the story is a joke or the history of a civilization, the story’s pilgrim arrives at the destination a changed person. Somehow, experience has been enhanced.

Besides a beginning, a middle and an end, a story also provides a circle. A convention that is almost a compulsion is a theme or feature of the beginning of the story that is repeated at the story’s end. This story-telling device is used across cultures across the world. This technique could be looked at as a signal that the tale is about to halt. Perhaps, like the hero’s journey, it grew from ancient myths and legends where the protagonist returns home with gifts. It could be said, when telling stories, that the destination is where the journey started.

I would suggest that deeply embedded in our personal, social and biological psyche is the circle, the ouroboros, the transforming of a single narrative thread into a round. With spoken language so deeply constrained from communicating the non-narrative nature of reality, this simple device creates a simulated whole. A larger sphere is suggested by the connecting of the end to the beginning.

In other words, the five-step principle of evolution is reproduced with many of the stories, communications, jokes and messages transmitted from one person to another. This reproduction is one way, as a species, that we pray. It is secular homage to our origins, our evolution and our awareness of this process. Telling these stories, we participate in the creative process that the stories themselves, through their construction, describe.

There is a five-step evolution continuum that begins with natural selection and ends with consciousness becoming self aware. Only, it was always so. We have been accompanied from the start.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Larry,

Yes, I read the odd graphic novel as well: Small Gods: Killing Grin written by an Aussie, Jason Rand and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns are 2 of my favourites. I once told someone that ELVENE was a graphic novel without the graphics.

In regard to your experience with The Cherry Orchard, I'm not surprised (even though I'm not familiar with it). Plays are not meant to be visualised. I remember we used to read Shakespeare out loud in class and I simply never got it.

Back in my teenagehood (60s) there was a government funded group called the Elizabethan Players, who used to travel the countryside putting on Shakespearean plays, and they performed one in the local Town Hall of the country town were I lived.

They performed Macbeth, which we hadn't studied, so I knew nothing about it, but it all made sense. Plays are meant to be staged not read.

Movie screenplays, on the other hand, when you read them, you should be able to visualise them. When I taught a writing class I handed out copies of various screenplays just to make that point.

In fact, writing screenplays, or attempting to write them, improved my writing (of prose fiction) out of sight.

By the way, there's now a generation of kids, boys in particular, who have never even read a novel, or so I'm discovering.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Andrew,

I have to admit a lot of what you say I don’t really comprehend, but I will try and address what I think I understand. Firstly, at the time I was reading Boyd’s book I was also reading Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which is effectively a book on how to write Hollywood style screenplays using Joseph Campbell’s famed Hero’s Journey model. The stuff about returning home with a gift, that you mention, comes straight out of that model, so I’m not sure if that’s what you were referring to.

I read Campbell’s Power of Myth a couple of decades ago (a series of interviews with Bill Moyers, actually) without knowing it was meant to be a template for writing fiction. I read it as an investigation of the relationship between mythology, religion and psychology.

I agree with the metaphor that a story is a journey, both an external journey and an internal journey, with one being the plot and the other being the character, as I alluded to in my post. But I discovered this for myself from writing stories, not from reading anyone’s theories on storytelling. Naturally, I made this one of my core ideas when I taught creative writing, but I stayed well away from Joseph Campbell. Analysing a story while you are writing it can be a story-killer, especially if you’re new at it.

I also had a look at your blog and what you say about identity. Basically, for each and every one of us, there is an internal world and an external world, which is analogous to character and plot in fiction as I referred to above. But to me, it’s really very simple – it’s our interaction with the external world that determines what we become. So there is a synergy, and the result depends on how you deal with failure more than how you deal with success. Socrates’ point about the unexamined life in essence. And this is what fiction reveals, almost in every story: how the hero deals with failure. You can over-analyse this, in my view, when it’s really very simple.

As for your evolutionary sequence, I’m not sure I follow your thread. However your step 5, about us now trying to understand all this, I’ve addressed in other posts, like this one. Effectively, if I follow your drift, it reflects Einstein’s famous quote: ‘The most incomprehensible about the universe is that it’s comprehensible.’ Or to put it in another form: The greatest mystery of the universe is that it created the ability to understand itself.

This is the loop you’re referring to: evolution has created a species that can now comprehend evolution. But I don’t see this as an analogy for storytelling. Fiction is escapism as I say in my post: it’s our precocious imagination being given full reign.

Regards, Paul.

Andrew Lehman said...

Hi Paul,

It seems there is a lot of overlap between our two views. I expect that if I was clearer, less abbreviated in my communication, there would be more common ground.

One way I describe what I hypothesize story telling to be is that it is one way we engage in a deep desire for union. Again, this goes back to Geoffrey Miller's work regarding sexual selection and the emergence of imagination. There was a time when we lived in primary process (no time, no place, no opposites), things were what they were. Imagination was limited. Something happened evolutionarily to compel that change. That thing than happened is integral to our understanding ourselves and understanding why we feel compelled to tell stories.

I believe it all comes down to dance.

We danced our way into big brains and imaginations with the most evocative dancers getting chosen as mates. We danced our way out of primary process into awareness of separate time and place. We danced our way into non gestural, spoken communication. Our brains lateralized. We've been seeking the experience of union during dance ever since. Story often works to simulate the experience.

See for details.

Thank you, Paul.


Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Andrew,

An interesting point. The greatest significance of the written word is that it is effectively an extension of memory (I'm talking long term memory) even to the extent that it transcends generations.

Before the written word, and in some cultures, like the Australian Aborigines, we have what we call an oral tradition that does the same thing.

In these cultures people use songs as they are easier to memorise and pass on to their children. In the case of Aborigines, the songs also include dance, which makes it easier still, albeit harder to learn, I suspect.

So I can see some merit in your thesis.

There's a Kiwi, Professor Corballis, whom I wrote to in 2007, who argues that language in hominids started as 'sign'. You can read our correspondence here.

Regards, Paul.

Andrew Lehman said...

Hi Paul,

Indeed, we seem to be operating on a similar plane. Songs go deep.

Corballis responding to your communication is very cool. I've followed his work for maybe 12 years.

I like the epiphany that you described to him. It reminds me some of Ken Wilber's description of nested hierarchy or holarchies as he calls them.

My personal connection to your description is the 19th century concept of four-fold parallelisms. See

Your epiphany was realising that nature also consists of different levels of entities within entities. I've spend no small amount of time exploring the relationship between four specific levels: biology, society, ontogeny and personal experience. These four levels nest, manifesting specific evolutionary patterns across all four scales.

Regarding your focus on story, I am also attracted to how the way we use story operates on these four planes. Stories inform the biological, social, growth and personal levels of experience.

Thanks, Paul.


Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Andrew,

I address the 'levels' of nature in some detail, at least in physics, here, though I admit it's a bit esoteric, and it leads into a discussion on the problems with String Theory, with references to far more knowledgable people than me.

An earlier post is easier to read and much shorter, but covers a greater territory, including a concept of God, similar to Spinoza's and favoured by Einstein, according to a recent biography I read by Anne Rooney, Einstein, in his own words.

And no, I'm not saying that Einstein was a Taoist, far from it. But one of the comments on that post, by The Rambling Taoist, refers to Spinoza and so does Rooney (as an influence on Einstein).

By the way, have you read Douglas Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach?

It covers much of the same territory, but in relation to biology and consciousness, rather than physics.

Regards, Paul.

April Sage said...

I must say in the beginning that am not like the average reader. I don't have a vivid imagination, in the sense that one pictures a story like a mental motion picture. I rarely mentally picture anything for more than brief flashes. Yet, as you know, I became an English Lit major, and am a writer of both fiction and non fiction, so I do enjoy fiction a great deal. This "handicap" of mine probably accounts for why I don't enjoy a great deal of action in my fiction (though I don't enjoy much action in films either, so go figure). I prefer scenes involving human interaction. I give you this warning, because this peculiarity of mine undoubtedly colors my own theories of fiction. It certainly makes me doubt your closing premise that fiction is impossible "without the facility of imagination."

Journalism as Not Art--Ouch. I think you've probably stepped on some toes with that one. The Art of Rhetoric is the first art to have been studied (in Aristotle's revered tome). Story may arguably be considered as one aspect of Rhetoric. The very best journalism often emotionally moves us in order to motivate social action.

Fiction and Empathy--I agree entirely with Boyd that this is fiction's primary function (even in its primitive forms like gossip). Fiction is training in empathy, and in the moral imagination that teaches us to consider the long-term consequences of our choices (if we ever do learn this skill). Even science fiction (which I believe is your chosen genre) is primarily moral. Science fiction has a long and proud history of warning us about social trends that may prove destructive to our environment and our humanity in the long run.

Fiction as Escapism--I don't know that I can agree with this entirely. If by escapism you mean the usual sense, the "Calgon take me away" sense, then there is undoubtedly something to this. However, that is only one of a great many reasons that I read fiction, and is not among the most appealing either. I read fiction to empathize with favorite characters, to feel myself as being "with them" in much the same way I am "with" my loved ones in their challenges. I can say this decidedly, because much of my fictional reading is rereading of treasured classics.

April Sage said...

Plot and Character--I agree that Plot provides expectations, but so does characterization. I also agree that Characters provide surprises; but, in the very best fiction, don't you agree that characterization is plot? Their choices must lead directly from who they are. If our characters surprise us, then it is largely because we discover who they are as we write. I see this characterization-unfolding-as-plot in some of the greatest novelist's works. Mary Shelley could sum up her Dr. Frankenstein as a modern Prometheus and George Eliot could sum up Dorothea Brooke as a modern Saint Theresa, because their characters (in the sense of personality) led to the resultant plots in the same crucial ways that the originals were led by their characters to make choices that created their lives (whether fictional or real).

Surprise--That surprise is a necessary element of fiction is an interesting supposition. I believe that this is an important element. We all appreciate a good plot twist. Yet, I don't believe that our satisfaction arises so much from our inability to anticipate the surprise. As I've said, I frequently reread. Yet, I find even more satisfaction from rereading than I did from the original experience. If surprise were all important, then we could never find satisfaction in rereading our favorite novels. This deserves further thought.

Narrative Voice (or POV)--I know that omniscient narrator voice has gone out of fashion, but I don't believe that it is inherently inferior. Wayne C. Booth in his most famous book of literary theory, the Rhetoric of Fiction, explores this concept extensively. The narrator voice is the primary reason that I love Jane Austen and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Inside the heads of characters--Yes! I wholeheartedly agree, that is the reason we read fiction. I also agree fiction will never die for that reason. Hurray!!!

Thanks for sharing this post, it is quite thought provoking. I will read the others you've suggested as well.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks April, for your very thought-provoking comment(s). You epitomise my little aphorism at the top of my blog. I was stimulated by Boyd's thesis and you by mine.

There is a tendency to think that everyone processes fiction the same way and perhaps they don't, or maybe it's a difference in emphasis. I actually agree with you in that straight action bores me. Reading action without suspense is like reading sex without romance. And I agree it's the interaction of the characters that separates good fiction from the mediocre - in other words, the depth and realism of characterisation is what I look for, as well as suspense. Typically male, I like suspense in my fiction.

You may be right: I was a bit harsh on journalism, because it can be very emotionally engaging at times. I've never been a journalist but writing non-fiction and fiction (for me) are miles apart. But maybe my own expectations are different, so maybe it says more about me than the writing.

I made the comparison with performing and composing a song. I did sing when I was younger (in stage musicals) and I've dreamt music, but I could never compose. So I think it's fair to say, that a journalist is an artist in the same way we would say that singers are artists. But, as a singer, I never considered myself an artist in the same way as I am a writer of fiction.

I've only ever had one novel published, so I'm hardly an expert. In my book, Elvene, I don't go in for detail descriptions - I paint my canvas very broad-brushed, like an impressionist. Yet many people have complimented me on my descriptions or 'scene-setting'. They told me that they could 'see everything', and that surprised me. But it led me to think that they created their own images but were unaware of it. I just gave them some framework and visual cues and they did the rest.

On the subject of re-reading. My mother is the only person I know who's read Elvene twice (who else would?). So I asked her how she found it the second time; after all, it is a suspense story.

She said that she enjoyed it more the second time (it was 2 years in between) because the first time she just wanted to finish it to find out what happened, but the second time she could take her time and get more involved in the characters and the story.

Thanks for your countrapuntal views, to borrow a musical metaphor.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi April, again.

I didn't address what you said about "characterization-unfolding-as-plot". There is an interaction between plot and character the same as there is an interaction between our own internal and external worlds, which I discuss briefly in my very first, and very brief, post on Self.

So yes, a character's choices affect the plot as much as the plot affects the character. But, in effect, it's the plot that forces the character to make choices, the same as we find in real life. It is our response to our external world that determines the person we become. I feel it is the same for a character. And you're right, I learn about my characters as the story develops the same as the reader does. This is arguably the most satisfying aspect of both reading and writing fiction.

By the way, the followers 'display' (on my blog) has disappeared, though I understand this is a glitch that 'Blogger' are trying to fix.

Regards, Paul.